Philippines’ ‘Rusting & Sinking’ Warship Deters China, Keeps Manila’s Territorial Claims Afloat As US Offers Help

To strengthen its maritime claims on the Second Thomas Shoal against China’s territorial claims, the Philippines announced in August that it would make efforts to repair a rusting World War era warship ‘Sierra Madre’ that is currently dug up in the shoal and functions as a Filipino military outpost.

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Listing out one of the many ways that the Philippines plans to defend its claims over the shoal, Vice Admiral Alberto Carlos, chief of the Philippine Western Command, said at the time: “All courses of actions to prolong our stay there are being considered… one of them is refurbishment.” 

A reef in the contentious South China Sea, the Second Thomas Shoal is a resource-rich waterway that serves as a major shipping channel and is located about 190 kilometers off the western coast of Palawan Island. In 1999, the Sierra Madre warship was purposefully grounded by the Philippines on the Second Thomas Shoal in the Spratly Islands to support its territorial claims.

The United States, a key ally of the Philippines, has reportedly decided to join that effort. According to reports, the United States has started offering the Philippines advice on repairing the World War II-era warship stranded in the Second Thomas Shoal in the South China Sea.

The effort is seen as Washington’s determination to defend Manila’s maritime rights in the face of escalating hostilities with China. The warship repair is required to keep it from sinking into the sea bed. Although China might oppose repair operations, Manila has stated that it plans to fix the vessel rather than replace it with an all-new warship.

Senior Philippine officials told Nikkei Asia that informal talks between Manila and Washington regarding the vessel’s structure have started to create solid repair plans. The United States might offer material transportation and security assistance during the restoration process.

BRP Sierra Madre in 2017 – Wikimedia Commons

A top US defense official expressed support for Manila’s plan to repair the aged vessel and that the United States would be happy to help at Manila’s request, even though he stopped short of commenting on specific assistance to the Philippines.

The development is significant amid rapidly growing tensions between the two claimants, and the US is making coordinated efforts to expand its presence in the region. US President Joe Biden warned China late last month that the US will defend the Philippines in case of any attack in the disputed South China Sea while reiterating his country’s “ironclad” defense commitment to the Philippines.

The warship, for one, has been a critical point of contention with China, which has rejected Manila’s maritime claims and asserts historical rights over almost the entirety of the South China Sea. Chinese ships have been accused of harassing Philippine ships on multiple occasions as they have attempted to supply food and fuel to the warship.

The Philippines accused Chinese coastguard vessels of “intentionally” colliding with its vessels while they were on a resupply mission around the Second Thomas Shoal. On its part, China refuted the claim and said the Philippine vessels “bumped dangerously” with the coastguard vessels and “Chinese fishing vessels” that were fishing there. Similar incidents have been reported on multiple occasions since then.

As high-voltage engagements and bellicose rhetorics become more frequent between the two claimants, Manila’s bid to repair the archaic warship is a move it cannot delay. 

A Nearly Sinking Sierre Madre Is Keeping Manila’s Claims Afloat 

In the South China Sea, the ship BRP Sierra Madre lies immobile and steadily deteriorating, serving as the Philippines’ improbable last line of defense against China’s growing claim to a portion of the vital waterway.

The LST-542-class tank landing ship, which dates back to World War II, was previously used by the US and Vietnam.

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During World War II, the ship completed most of its missions, supplying Eniwetok, Okinawa, Ie Shima, Ulithi, and Guam. It was decommissioned and placed in reserve after World War II until it was required for Vietnam. As part of Operation “Game Warden,” it provided a base for the Mekong Delta Mobile Afloat Force in Vietnam. The US warship also distinguished itself in Vietnam, receiving nine battle stars.

Since 1999, the run-down ship has been stuck close to Second Thomas Shoal in the Spratly Islands. The battered tank landing ship BRP Sierra Madre (LT-57) of the Philippine Navy ran aground on a rock close to Second Thomas Shoal in the Spratly Islands on May 9, 1997. She was stuck, and there was no way it could get out on its own.

The Measure of the Sierra Madre | Naval History Magazine - February 2022 Volume 36, Number 1
Sierra Madre- US Naval Institute (USNI)

Two Chinese frigates are said to have steamed into the vicinity six days later and trained their guns on the stranded hulk. It was said that the Chinese ships did not offer any support. Even if they had, the outdated tank landing ship crew would not have asked for or appreciated their assistance.

To strengthen the Philippines’ claim to sovereignty over the Spratly Islands, the Sierra Madre was purposefully run aground. It was one of many long-running disputes over rights to the fiercely disputed South China Sea on various fronts.

The Philippine Navy is concerned that China would intervene and assert its claim to the Second Thomas Shoal since the ship, which is in the final stages of advancing the country’s territorial sovereignty claims, has holes in its hull and is being propped up by tires.

The northern Philippines’ Sierra Madre Mountains, home to some of the country’s most remote and challenging-to-reach towns, inspired the preceding LST’s name. Consequently, the ship herself would likely become an isolated, inaccessible outpost.

Remarkably, the ship survived for two more years after a study commissioned by the Philippine government in 2018 determined it would not make it.

China, on its part, has been making supply runs for the crew of the Sierra Madre challenging for years. This pattern of action has continued with the most recent tensions. The biggest fear in The Philippines is that China would invade and annex the Shoal if the Sierra Madre were to collapse completely.

The Philippines would have a rugged retreat if they abandoned the ship. However, according to the Philippine officials, Manila would perform most of the necessary repairs alone instead of in partnership with the US. The official implied that China would respond more aggressively if the  US assistance became more apparent.